Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Vacation, Part 1: Andringitra National Park

I recently got back from a vacation with Tisa, another PCV, down to the Southwest of Madagascar. To start off our vacation, we met up in Fianarantsoa (AKA Fianar) and began what would soon become one of the best vacations I have ever taken. Our first destination was Andringitra National Park, situated in the mountains a bit south of Fianar. Another PCV, Liz, is located in a village near one of the park entrances and happened to already be in Fianar, which was incredibly lucky for us since actually getting TO Andringitra is quite the challenge. But we set out with Liz as our trusty leader and had no idea the adventure we were about to begin. We set off in a taxi-brousse from Fianar to Ambalavao—about an hour and a half stretch. A couple PCV’s used to live with a group that weaves silk in Ambalavao, so we stopped by to say hello and they allowed us to leave some extra luggage with them that we wouldn’t need for the few days in the park. We also picked up lots of rice, vegetables, bananas, peanuts, chickpeas, and pasta to take into the park with us. The plan was to spend a total of 3 days hiking and camping in the park, and we needed to be fairly self-sufficient with supplies. We would pass through a few more towns along the way, but they are much less stocked, so we had to get things on the earlier end. (This ended up being fairly rough, as you will soon see.) After lunch, we took a second taxi-brousse to Vohitsoaka, which is 15km (9 miles) from Andringitra, but is also unfortunately the last point to which taxi-brousses can run because the road is so bad. So from there we had to walk, carrying all of our stuff.
Liz told us it would be roughly a 3-hour walk. About 30 minutes in, it started pouring rain. We were soon drenched, slogging through mud and rain, carrying our things and trying to keep everything dry. To add insult to injury, our second taxi-brousse had left pretty late, so it began to get dark after a couple hours. Before long we were navigating through all of that in the dim light of our headlamps—climbing up and down the hills, tromping through flooded parts of the road, and trying not to trip over rocks or fall in holes. And while conditions are certainly not always so rough, I’d like to point out that Liz has to walk that stretch every single time she leaves from or returns to her site. At least once a week she has to do that in order to go to the market and buy food, but she also has to go anytime she has a meeting or other PC business to attend to. Liz is basically the toughest person on the planet—props to her. Anyway, we eventually reached Liz’s house, cleaned off a bit, hung things out to dry, drank some hot tea, and went to bed. That first day should have been an indication of what we were getting ourselves into, yet somehow we still had ourselves fooled that the hiking in the park wouldn’t actually be that bad. So, the next morning we got up, packed our things, made arrangements with the park office to hire a guide and a porter, and set off into Andringitra National Park.
That first day ended up being about 8.5 hours of hiking, 6-7 of which were spent climbing, climbing, climbing, and more climbing up very steep rock “steps.” Thighs burning, we somehow managed to push onward, telling ourselves we were almost to the top . . . when suddenly another peak rose behind the one we had just scaled. We stopped for lunch at a campsite and got a bit of rest before continuing on, but the afternoon proved even more challenging than the morning. It started pouring rain again, and it continued to grow colder the higher we climbed. We spent about 3 hours in the rain, but finally made it to our campsite shortly before dark. Our incredible guide and porter really took care of us—the porter put our tent up before we even arrived, and they cooked delicious meals for us. (Don’t worry, we tipped very well!) That evening we warmed up a bit by the fire and then turned in pretty early, hoping to rest up for the next day.
The next morning, we set out very early to climb Peak Imarivolanitra (“close to the sky”). We felt the name was fairly apropos, as we basically ended up in the clouds. Once again it was pouring rain and was VERY cold and windy, especially the closer we got to the peak. Luckily we’d be doing a loop back to the campsite, so we didn’t have to carry all of our things this time around. Once we reached the top we stayed just long enough to take a few pictures before starting the descent. Climbing down was pretty rough because by that time there was lots of water pouring down the mountain, so everything was very slick and difficult to balance on. Yet somehow, we made it. The whole thing took about 4 hours, and we had plenty of time to warm up by the fire again and rest before heading to the next campground.
Luckily that was a pretty easy walk, and despite a bit of misty rain, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Liz had a meeting the day before, so she hadn’t set off with us into the park, but she met us at the campsite that second day. Again we warmed up by the fire and had lemongrass tea—freshly picked from in the park—and got to relax for a while. There was another group there that had a ton of guides and porters, so we spent the evening chatting with the Malagasy but once again hit the sack pretty early.
The final day we had originally been planning to hike out of the park, and then get back to Ambalavao so we could continue on our adventure the next day. We once again had underestimated the difficulty of the terrain, and we soon realized we weren’t going to get any farther than the park exit/Liz’s village. It was about 7 hours of very strenuous climbing down—difficult because a lot of the “trail” wasn’t very stable, and we were so exhausted from the previous three days’ hikes, so our muscles just didn’t want to hold us up anymore.
We FINALLY made it to our guide’s village, about 20 minutes from the park exit. We stopped briefly, and his family offered us boiled cassava. Cassava, a staple food here and in many parts of the world, is about the most flavorless food in existence, and has virtually no nutritional value. Any value it might have is lost upon preparation because it contains cyanide and therefore has to be boiled for a very, very long time. I actually kind of like cassava when the Malagasy prepare it with a bit of sauce (usually tomatoes, onions, oil, curry, and salt), although most frequently it is simply boiled and eaten plain. I eat it graciously when it’s offered to me, but it’s never a snack I select for myself. It’s similar to eating a boiled potato . . . but worse. Never in my life did I think I would be delighted at the thought of eating plain, boiled cassava, but it turned out in that moment to be one of the most delicious things I’d ever eaten. So exhausted after 4 days of very rough hiking, it somehow just hit the spot. It gave us just enough of a boost to continue on for the very last stretch. Now don’t get me wrong—the whole adventure was absolutely, positively worth it. As you can see from the pictures, it is an unbelievably beautiful park. It’s a lot more difficult to access, and many guidebooks underplay how awesome the park is (probably because it’s a bit harder to reach), so it’s not one of the major tourist destinations here. It’s incredible that I got to see it, and like much of my Peace Corps experience, I had to push myself far beyond what I thought I was capable of. This has been a pretty long post, so I’ll continue the rest of our vacation in later posts. Also, I apologize that it seems to be one giant paragraph. I haven't figured out this new formatting and can't seem to separate paragraphs. I'm technologically challenged enough at home without having to keep up with changes! Love love.

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